On Yom Kippur, I usually want to stay in shul all day, partly because, dehydrated, hungry and caffeine-deprived, I enter a kind of trance state, latching on to some parts of the service, fading out during others, and then sometimes finding a way to reenter the moment. (I guess giving a drash is one way to reenter the moment, at least briefly.) The many repetitions–of the Al Cheit, the Vidui, the Amidah–are there precisely for people like me, to make sure I don’t zone out at a crucial moment and leave my many impurities un-purified.
So how do we enter, or re-enter, prayers that are so familiar and yet so distant in many ways from our own lives? One way to bring these deeply embedded rituals, that go back to memories from childhood, to our parents childhoods, and to generations before them, is to bring them to life by imagining what the words and meanings of the service were for our forbears millenia ago–such as the priestly rituals that we rehearse without fully understanding, the desperate urgency of purifying the Temple and cleansing the people of their sins so that the entire people will not be destroyed. Today I want to talk about one of the most moving images of the service–our pleas to “Seal us in the book of life,” (chat meynu b’sayfer ha chayim)
For me, the most beautiful part of the Yom Kippur service is Ne’ilah, literally “closing” referring to the closing of the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem, and symbolically to the closing of the gates of Heaven. Tired, hungry, we raise our voices, with increasing urgency, rushing forward together, pleading with God [in the Amidah (p. 398)] “Remember us for life, Sovereign who delights in life, and seal us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, God of life.” This is our last chance before our fates are sealed.
But what does it mean to make it through the gates–whether we try to slip through or storm them–before they close? What does it mean to be “sealed in the book of Life”?
For our ancestors, I think it literally meant not to die, to live another year. It is sometimes hard for us–living in a wealthy country, with long life-expectancies, antibiotics, clean water, and the illusion (until we face the bitter reality) that all diseases either have (or should have) a cure, to understand fully the terrible vulnerability of the body throughout most of human history–the pervasive, near constant, fear of death. Just yesterday morning, Opening Science Times, I read “As plague swept through Europe in the mid-1300s, wiping out more than a third of the region’s population….” This is the world our ancestors inhabited, in constant danger from plagues that could wipe out entire communities, devastation in war, the threat of annihilation.
Of course, as some of us age, death becomes much more real, and we all learn what it is to face the loss of those we love, lighting yartzeit candles in memory of those we have lost, saying the shechekhianu with greater fervor each year, literally thanking God that we and those we care for have lived to reach this moment.
Indeed, a lot of Yom Kippur is about death. Fasting is a kind of premonition of dying, a reminder of what it would mean to have our bodies stop. Kittels–or the other white garments some of us ransack our closets for–are reminders of the burial shroud. And in many parts of the service we remember the dead, as at Yizkor, as well as invoking God’s power over life and death.
Judaism is in many ways a very down-to-earth, even earthy religion. Our prayer on awakening blesses the orifices of our bodies. We not only permit, we require that the love of a married couple be expressed physically. The obligation to save life trumps even the obligation to fast on Yom Kippur. We live very much in our bodies. But I still want to ask what, on Yom Kippur, we are praying for when we ask God to “inscribe us,” to “seal us,” in the Book of Life. Is it just that we, as we almost certainly do, hope desperately that our mortal bodies will live another year?
Here, I think we have to stop for a minute and ask not only what it means to die, but equally urgent, what it means to live. I’m not going to suggest as last week’s Darshan did so beautifully, that we live every day as if it might be our last, important as that is. Instead I want to probe what Jewish tradition implies about what it means to die, and to live.
I think we are often misled about this, because we live in such an individualist society. We think that what lives, and what dies, is our individual selves. But for most of human history what lived, or could die out, was one’s lineage, one’s family, one’s tribe, or one’s people. Natalie Zemon Davis, the great historian of Early Modern Europe, wrote a wonderful essay about early autobiographies of European women. And Italian woman, writing in the mid-sixteenth Century, wrote her own story, not as a story about herself, but as part of a history of her husband’s lineage. When that story, the real story, got to her, she included herself as part of the story that mattered.
We see throughout the Torah how it is the threat of the annihilation of one’s line–all those generations to come–that is so feared. God’s promises and God’s curses aren’t about our individual suffering or redemption, but about the promise of generations to come that will multiply to fill the land. This need to preserve the lineage, the clan, underlies, for example, the claims of women–the daughters of Zelafchad, to whom God gives land because their father has no son to claim their lineage’s portion; Tamar, whose deceased husband has the right to an heir to carry on his name. God’s promises are promises to a people, and God’s terrible threats are threats to annihilate a people, so that it has no future.
Then what is death in Jewish tradition? Stu Kelman, our founding Rabbi, reminded me that in the Torah, when someone dies, that person is “gathered to his people.” V’he’ah saf el amav. As one of Stu’s teachers put it, “In the Torah, people don’t go into the ground, they go into people.”
In last week’s parasha, Ha’azinu,” for Shabbat Tshuvah, God tells Moses that he is about to die, that he can see but not enter the future of his people, the Promised Land. God says to Moses, “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your people (v’hay ah sef el ah mecha), as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people (v’yay ah sef el ah mahv).” To see, but not enter, the future is precisely what it is to have a “Promised Land,” to be part of a collective life that moves forward, beyond one’s own life, into an always unknowable future.
Many years ago, when Claude and I lived in San Francisco and were members of Beth Shalom, we were privileged to hear one of the last sermons by Rabbi Saul White (may his memory be for a blessing). He was dying, but he hadn’t yet told anyone. He spoke about Moses’ death, his being allowed by God to see the Promised Land, but not to enter it. He made the point that all of us, whenever we die, always have a promised land, just beyond us, that we can’t enter, something we would want to live for that we won’t be there for. He was preoccupied with his grandson’s upcoming high school basketball tournament and longed to be there to see whether his grandson’s team won. But I want to turn this around. The very meaning of a Promised Land is to be part of a future that stretches out beyond one’s own life, that one cannot enter.
So for us, what does it mean to live, to be sealed in the Book of Life? It can’t just mean living our own individual, biological lives. These inevitably, have to end. Rather it means something more–to live in community, through and with a collective life that reaches back into the unfathomable past that we glimpse only through the mysteries of the Torah and of an ancient service like that in our Machzor, that reaches up to a longing for the divine, and that reaches forward into a future that, in this interdependent, global world, all of humankind, and indeed all life on this planet, share.
This is the life we seek from God. A life of meaning and good deeds, but also a life that continues beyond us.
In the final service of this day, after the Ashamnu, we say, (p. 405) “You, forgiving God, are compassionate and merciful, patient, abounding in love and goodness, and desire the return of the evildoers–not their death. For You instructed your prophet Ezekiel: “Say to them, ‘as I live, declares our Lord, I do not desire the death of the evildoers, but that they turn from their paths and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil paths that you may not die, House of Israel!”
When Ezekiel says “Turn back, turn back from your evil paths that you may not die, House of Israel!” It isn’t just our personal death, but the death of our “house” of our people that matters. And by now our “house” is not only our immediate community: our family, our friends, our synagogue, even the Jewish people, it’s the life and the future of our entire planet.
So as we seek life, and pray to avoid death, at least for another year, we can also keep powerfully alive our recognition that what it means to have a life is to be embedded in the history of a community, a people, and the broader life of all humankind, the life of all life. As we surge forward, trying to rush through the gates before they close, we bring with us all the past that made our present possible, and we yearn to contribute to the future of life, since without that collective future, our individual life, even if we are fortunate enough to preserve it, has little meaning. My hope for all of us, then, is not that we never die, but that we are sealed in the Book of Life, to be read by untold generations to come.
For those reading this, rather than hearing it, I include moving reflections by my teacher, Robert Bellah, who wrote this to a young friend who had lost his father. It is very Christian in content, but to may way of thinking, very Jewish in spirit:
Where were you before you were born? That’s where you will go after you die.
Robert Bellah (1927-2013)
Well before I was born, I was in the sperm of my father and the egg of my mother, I had within me the earliest beginnings of the components of a billion or more years of life, the genes that I share with worms (a lot) and with mold (some), and the atoms that I share with the universe all the way back to the big bang. So returning to all that isn’t so bad.
Further, I will join the company of saints, of all those whose cultural work has made it possible for me to have been a half-way decent person, and what I have added to the cultural pool, even when I am long forgotten, will go on having an influence (unless we become extinct soon, which is also possible) for a long, perhaps an immeasurable time.
As for eternal life, that is now. If we don’t see eternity in a grain of sand, when will we ever see it. As for resurrection, as Tillich said, dead men don’t walk. But Christ was surely resurrected in the consciousness of his disciples and is more alive today than the day he was crucified, in the faces of all those who follow his example and who keep him alive.
Many wonder workers have resurrected the dead. I never understood those who think the truth of Christianity hinges on the physical resurrection of Jesus. If that is the test then a lot of nutty religions are also true. Eternal life is here and now. Christians have hardly come to a consensus on life after death. Augustine thought we would join the choir of angels in singing an eternal Hallelujah. Fine with me.
But most Americans who believe in life after death think they will rejoin their dead family members and live happily ever after. A very modern, bourgeois, kind of afterlife, hardly what traditional Christians thought. But I have no interest in destroying the beliefs of others. If thinking one will rejoin one’s loved ones helps bear the pain of death then I’m all for it. I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one.